Postmodern Patriot

Alex Sheshunoff's E-The People initiative wrangles Internet democracy

| November/December 1998


On the blustery expanse of San Francisco's City Hall plaza, Alex Sheshunoff positions himself for an on-camera television interview to promote E-The People, his new online political action service. In jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue shirt of subtly Western design, Sheshunoff looks every inch the archetypal American up-and-comer. “E-The People,” he tells the camera, “is really about local people fixing local problems. You should be able to get your congressperson's attention with a letter, not a check.”

A casual observer might take the lanky Sheshunoff for a media veteran—he knows how authority should sound, and he delivers his sound bites with deceptive spontaneity. Only when the interview ends do clues emerge that the 24-year-old entrepreneur is working without a net: He exhales sharply, rolls his eyes, and rubs his palms together in a way that hints of a cold sweat. “Don't worry,” says the sympathetic cameraman. “It'll get easier over time.”

“How much time?” Sheshunoff wonders.

“Oh, six or seven years.”



To a man who lives his life on Internet time, where new ideas become fads in a week and obsolete in a month, this must seem like an interminable stretch. Sheshunoff launched New York Now, an entertainment and listing service, the day he graduated from Yale with an undergraduate degree in history. Within a year, he'd spun the concept into a content-providing company, Studio Now, which employs a staff of 20 in its Greenwich Village offices. But he admits he always wanted more: “You can only reap so much meaning selling online restaurant guides,” he laments.

These days, www.studionow.com whisks its visitors to www.e-thepeople.com, where the concerned citizen can punch in her zip code, select from a database of 140,000 elected officials around the country, and electronically file a personal complaint. This “interactive town hall” also assists organizations in developing letter-writing campaigns, petition drives, and online fundraising. And it's all free. Sheshunoff hopes to keep the venture afloat with ad revenues, most of them gleaned from partnerships with media affiliates (some 40 newspapers and TV stations, including the New York Daily News and the Houston Chronicle, reportedly have signed on). “But the business aspect of it is secondary,” he contends. “We want to make money only as far as we can continue to make it available for free to activists and nonprofit groups.”